The Author’s Guide to a Successful Book Cover

Over the last 17 years, I have had the privilege of working with many, many authors. One thing I am constantly hearing from them is that their cover design is “out of their hands.” I am, of course, referring to those authors who choose the publisher route – someone who is self-publishing will have as much control over their design as they want. But for those authors who choose to publish – whether you use a traditional publisher, a vanity publisher, or anything in-between, many authors are given the impression that the cover design has nothing to do with them. They are essentially told, You write the words, and leave the designing to us.

Well, good news. As an author, you DO have a voice. The key is using it and using it in a constructive way. I work with many publishers, and cannot tell you how many times I have changed a cover because of an author’s comments. So how do you do it? How do you tell the publisher what you want in a cover and get them to listen to you? And if you are self-publishing, how should you approach your cover designer so you can get the best results out of him/her?

Here are 3 basic steps. Follow these steps, and you are guaranteed a great cover – one that better represents your voice, content, and vision.

Step One: Understand what makes a good cover

The first step is to make sure you have a basic understanding of what makes a cover well-designed. The good news is that design is mostly subjective, so there are not so many rules to learn here. A good cover has these 3 basic qualities:

  • It catches the reader’s eye.
  • It captures the essence of the book.
  • It is recognizable as belonging to a certain genre.

As the very talented book designer Chip Kidd put it – “A book cover is a distillation of the content, almost like what your cover would look like as a haiku.”

Something important to keep in mind is that beyond these three very basic elements, anything goes, and much is open to interpretation. Even the “essence of the book” is open to interpretation – what you feel is the crux of your book may not be what the publisher feels is the main point that should be emphasized.

Step Two: Find sample covers

Now that you have a basic understanding of what you need in a cover, the next step is finding sample covers to show your designer or publisher. Find examples of covers you like, but also covers you don’t like, and make notes about what you like or dislike about each cover and why. The more examples you can bring with you, the better understanding the designer will have about exactly what it is you are looking for.

Step Three: Put together a creative brief

This step is probably the most important because here is where you are going to try and communicate with the designer or publisher what it is you want. Make sure to be as clear as possible, and as detailed as you can. Communication is key – you want to make sure that the publisher or designer has a very good idea of what you want before they start.

Make sure your brief includes the following information:

  • The list of covers that you put together is Step Two, together with your reasons as to why you feel each cover is successful (or not)
  • Your target market – be as specific as you can here. “When I wrote this book I was writing to a 14-year-old girl in the ninth grade who attends public school in a small town.” This does not mean that only 14-year-old girls who fit this profile will read your book – it means that when the designer sits down to design your cover, they will have a good idea of where to start and what direction to go in.
  • What kind of feelings should your cover evoke? Nostalgia? Friendship? Warmth? Love? Fun? Playfulness? Sadness? Horror? Curiosity?
  • A description of your book. Sometimes designers gain as much from hearing about how you describe the book as from reading the book itself. It helps us to pinpoint what parts of the book you feel are relevant and important.

If you come to your designer or publisher armed with this information, you will be much better prepared to critique the design they come back to you with, and you will end up with a much better cover.

Good luck with your next book!

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